BWW Reviews: Elegant Heiress at Pasadena Playhouse


The Heiress
by Ruth Goetz and Augustus Goetz
directed by Damaso Rodriguez
Pasadena Playhouse
through May 20

Upon seeing The Heiress, based on Henry James' novel Washington Square, one is transported to a distant world. If middle-class values existed, they were certainly not recognized by the inhabitants of 1850 Washington Square, where members of the elitist branch of society insisted on being surrounded by only wealth and privilege. When poor Morris Townsend (Steve Coombs) asks for the hand in marriage of plain, rich Catherine Sloper (Heather Tom), he is branded a fortune hunter and shunned by her uncontrollably cruel father Dr. Austin Sloper (Richard Chamberlain). Now in a most stunning revival at the Pasadena Playhouse under the elaborate direction of Damaso Rodriguez, a stellar cast deliver the goods and bring fresh meaning to The Heiress.

It is difficult to look honestly at a classic play and value its universality without thinking "dated".  Set in the 19th century, The Heiress is a glimpse at a world that no longer exists but whose snobbery and old-fashioned conceptions of individual self-worth are still held by many two centuries later. How often does a father or mother chastise a child for not living up to their potential! And ever so detrimental to the emotional well being of that child! Dr. Sloper cannot stand the fact that his wife died because of daughter Catherine's difficult birth - he blames her for it - and constantly berates her, as she is trying desperately to win his favor and love. This kind of paternal abuse is as evil and vile as the physical kind, perhaps greater, leaving the victim without any sense of pride. Then there is the self-proclaimed love of mercenary Morris Townsend, who, despite his charms, interpreted as false or otherwise, has managed to make Catherine feel finally alive...and somewhat loved, even if it is not completely. As she herself proclaims at one point, it is certainly better than the attention she has been getting.

The acting under Damaso Rodriguez' fine direction is simply superb. Chamberlain has never been better, playing the wicked father most convincingly. He never overplays, but keeps his negative comments low-key, practically treating some lines as throw aways, making the bite internal and thoroughly brutal. Julia Duffy as Aunt Lavinia is equally adept in her outstanding portrayal. Every word and gesture has meaning, as she, the opposite of Dr. Sloper, cares so deeply for Catherine's plight. Coombs, such a good actor, plays Townsend with a genuine quality, leaving just a trace of sympathy/pity for his actions. Does he or doesn't he love Catherine Sloper? You, the audience, must decide. The lovely Heather Tom is astounding as dowdy Catherine, making her every inch the insecure old maid. Her emotional breakdown in Act II when Morris fails to arrive is thrilling to the bone, as is her turn-around complete sense of control throughout the remainder of the play. Wonderful in supporting roles are Gigi Birmingham, Jill Van Velzer, Elizabeth Tobias, Anneliese van Der Pol and Chris Reinacher. Leah Piehl's costumes are excellent period creations and John Iacovelli's set design is to die for, one of the best on stage anywhere. If I gave awards for set design, it would win first prize.
This revival of The Heiress is indeed elegantly mounted from top to bottom. What is fresh in its acute vision is the awareness that people can relate to each other across centuries, and that bad behavior in a myriad of family relationships is simply that, and sadly will never alter.

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